Covered in a mixture of sweat, water and vegetable shortening, Nick McGowan tossed a cap on top of the Herndon Monument just after noon on Monday. McGowan’s lob meant one simple thing: members of the Class of 2025 are plebes no more.
After 3 hours, 36 minutes and 58 seconds, the 1,100 first-year midshipmen had worked together by hooking arms, standing on shoulders and cheering each other on to successfully scale the 21-foot Naval Academy obelisk.
The climb is part of a tradition for first-year Naval Academy students. Together, they mount a monument covered in about 200 lbs. of vegetable shortening while they are sprayed with water.
This year’s time wasn’t particularly fast, however. The climb came in as the third-slowest on record, according to an academy spokesperson.
“My first thought was, ‘How am I getting down?’” McGowan said after the climb ended.
The Sioux City, Iowa native was surprised to be the one whose cap toss landed on top of the monument.
“I was thinking I was more of a midsection guy. [Then] some kid looked at me and said, ‘Are you going up?’ I was like, ‘I was going to support.’ He said ‘Go on up’ and I’m going up,” he said.
But McGowan made sure to stress he was just the one who happened to climb on top of his classmates at the very end. In his celebratory speech he thanked his classmates at the base.
Spectators come from all around the country to watch the plebes climb the tower and replace a hat — known as a Dixie cup — with a cap, a symbol of the end of the plebe year and progression into their second year at the academy.
Maureen Weaverling, from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, was emotional watching her daughter Catherina work with the team to climb the Herndon Monument.
“This is awesome to watch them bonding together,” Weaverling said. “In the beginning [the academy] was tough, but she loves it now. She’s definitely excited not to be called a plebe anymore.”
The climb itself was not without challenges. Plebes near the top slipped off the shoulders of their peers, falling to the bottom of the monument. And the carefully crafted human pyramid tipped from side to side as students lost strength.
Kindergarten teacher Liz Lese, who is the grandmother of Midshipman Owen Wise, from River Falls, Wisconsin, said the climb reminded her of a teambuilding practice she might do with her students.
“It’s terribly exciting,” Lese said. “It’s no different than kindergarten.”
She said Wise had wanted to go to the Naval Academy since he saw the Blue Angels in Pensacola, Florida, at 6 years old. She was thrilled to see his dream coming to life.
Families in town for the week came to watch as well. In the case of Michelle Phillips and Kim Durfee, the pair quietly hoped the class of 2025 wouldn’t beat the time of their kids’ class of 2022 record, which was a little over an hour, they said.
Durfee said watching the plebes climb the monument made her yearn for a simpler time when her son was still in school. He will soon head to Quantico as he trains for the Marines, she said.
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“I’m happy to see his dream come true. I’m nervous as a mother,” Durfee said. “You think military and you think danger.”
But as the families watched the plebes rising and falling from the monument, the midshipmen didn’t quit.
“We’re a family,” McGowan said.
Naval Academy Superintendent, Vice Admiral Sean Buck, reminded families and students what the climb is all about: honoring the spirit of Commander William Herndon who drowned with his ship off the coast of North Carolina in 1857 after trying to save as many on board as possible from a hurricane.
“It’s one of the truest, richest traditions we have at the Naval Academy that binds all alumni together,” Buck said. “It epitomized what Bill Herndon stood for. It epitomizes a saying many of us have heard: “Ship, Shipmates, Self.”
Monday’s climb was the start of a busy Commission Week at the academy. A Blue Angels flyover rehearsal is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday. The academy Glee Clubs and Gospel Choir Concert is set for 8 p.m. Tuesday,
On Wednesday, the Blue Angels flight demonstration is scheduled for 2 p.m. The Color Parade is Thursday at 11 a.m. The week culminates with graduation and the commissioning ceremony starting at 10 a.m. Friday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with keynote speaker President Joe Biden.